When we began putting together our DVD collection after joining the DVD revolution late, there were two documentaries that I wanted in that collection. Ken Burn’s incredible The Civil War.. and Eyes on the Prize, the documentary about the civil rights movement.
I remember watching Eyes on the Prize in school in the late 1980s or early 1990s – for a few days during a history class. I don’t think there’s ever been a more poignant documentary about life in these United States – and one that every person should watch to understand the Civil Rights Movement. Course, I also think that history classes should travel to Fort McHenry in Baltimore to hear the story of Francis Scott Key, to the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts to see where all of this began, and to Little Round Top near Gettysburg where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine held the line and saved the Union army.. but I’m known to have rather extreme views.
That said, apparently I won’t be buying a DVD set of Eyes on the Prize, because of some overstrung copyright laws, as reported in today’s Boston Globe:
“EYES ON THE PRIZE,” the epic 1986 documentary series on the civil rights movement, contains a scene showing Martin Luther King Jr. on his 39th birthday — his last — in 1968. King, who was trying to take on poverty and the Vietnam War simultaneously, was under tremendous stress at the time, and his staff sang ”Happy Birthday” in an attempt to cheer him up.
But the producers of ”Eyes” almost had to leave the scene out of the finished documentary. ”Happy Birthday,” as it turns out, was copyrighted in 1935 and, following the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998, will remain so until at least 2030. Filmmakers have been known to pay $15,000 to $20,000 for just one verse, according to a recent report on documentary clearances issued by the Center for Social Media.
The song ultimately stayed in the film, but don’t plan on celebrating King’s birthday tomorrow by going to your local video store to buy a copy of ”Eyes on the Prize.” Thanks to rights restrictions on archival material used in the documentary, the 14-hour chronicle tracing the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycotts in the 1950s to the rise of black mayors in the 1980s can no longer be released in new editions or shown on television. PBS’s right to air the film expired in 1993. Meanwhile, the VHS edition has gone out of print and a DVD release would require relicensing. (Complete sets of used videos are currently going for as much as $1,000 on Amazon.)
The problem goes beyond one documentary. ”We are crippling the story-telling of our own culture by the rigidity of our copyright interpretation,” says Patricia Aufderheide, who cowrote the Center for Social Media report ”Untold Stories,”
I’m friends with many artists and photographers and even a few cartoonists – I fully respect their views on copyright and share many of them. But issues like this just frustrate the hell out of me.
Let’s do the right things for Eyes on the Prize…